Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Electric Mood-Control Acid Test

A startup called Thync will sell electrodes that you put on your head to improve your mood. The results may vary to a surprising degree.
I’m working on a story that’s almost due. It’s going well. I’m almost finished. But then everything falls apart. I get an angry e-mail from a researcher who’s upset about another article. My stomach knots up. My heart pounds. I reply with a defensive e-mail and afterward can’t stop mentally rehashing my response. Taking deep breaths and a short walk don’t help. I can’t focus on finishing my story, and as the deadline approaches, that makes me more uptight and it gets even harder to write.
But then I apply electrodes to my head and neck, power up a small electronic device, and shock myself. Within a few minutes I calm down. I can focus on my story. I meet the deadline.
The device, which you’ll be able to buy later this year for a price that has yet to be disclosed, was developed by a team of neuroscientists and engineers at the startup Thync. It’s a small, curved piece of plastic that snaps onto electrodes and produces pulses of electricity. A wireless signal from a smartphone app controls the frequency and intensity of the pulses, gradually changing them in five- to 20-minute long programs that Thync calls vibes. The amount of electricity it produces is small—once it’s set up properly, I can barely feel it. Yet Thync says it has a marked impact on key parts of a person’s brain. An energy vibe, the company contends, can make you feel as if you’ve just had a Red Bull or similar energy drink. The calm vibe—the one I just ran—is for “whenever you’re frustrated, anxious, or stressed.”
There’s no question that I feel a significant change from the calm vibe, but could that be a placebo effect? I wonder if it works on everyone, and if it works the way Thync says it does.
To find out, I ask three researchers with expertise in neuroscience to review the results of a study Thync posted last month in the open-access online journal BioRxiv, where papers are not peer-reviewed before publication. The paper details experiments that measured the effects of Thync’s calm vibe. I also test that vibe on eight people in the office, and I use the device myself multiple times a day for several days to compare the effects in different settings.
What I find is that the company’s claims are plausible, but the device doesn’t work for everybody, and it’s far too soon to make the call on whether Thync’s hypothesis about how it works is true.
The idea of using electricity to affect the brain is hardly new. Researchers of varying character have been shocking people’s heads for hundreds of years. One scientist jokes that the high point of the hype cycle for electrical treatments was 1818, when Frankenstein was published. While technologies like electroshock therapy have inflicted severe damage on patients, doctors are favoring newer electricity-based therapies. These include a safer version of electroshock therapy called electroconvulsive therapy, deep brain stimulation, and transcranial magnetic stimulation (which induces electric current in parts of the brain using an external magnetic coil). They’re used to treat a variety of disorders, including Parkinson’s and depression..
My own informal survey suggested that the effects can vary a lot depending on the person. Two of my eight coworkers felt no calming effects at all. Four experienced mild ones; two experienced profound effects similar to what I had. One told me it’s a “letting go kind of sensation, like I could just kind of sit here.” He smiled and added, “This must be like one-15th of what people feel in opium dens. I feel super-mellow.”
The setting seems to matter. The calming vibe is most intense for me when I am slouched into my couch at home with the lights dimmed. When I use the device at work, the effect is much less pronounced.
Thync says the energy vibe—which is purportedly achieved by increasing the brain’s production of norepinephrine instead of suppressing it as with the calm vibe—can make people feel like they’ve consumed 20 ounces of Red Bull, which has caffeine, sugar, and vitamin B. But it seemed to have a small effect on me, much less obvious than the effect of the calm vibe, and Thync hasn’t published detailed data to support its contention..By Kevin Bullis (technologyreview.com)

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